by Kim Sichel. Yale University Press, March 2020. 224 p. ill. ISBN 9780300246186 (h/c), $65.00.

Reviewed January 2021
Jess Fijalkovich, Independent Researcher and Art Librarian,

sichelIn 1928, several French photographic events occurred that marked a departure from earlier norms, making way for more experimental options as historical formats began to loosen.  Avant-garde book construction, production, and subjects began to change at a time when new ideas about representation were exploding. This is the starting point of Making Strange. Kim Sichel, associate professor of the history of photography and modern art at Boston University, examines pioneering French modernist photography books from the late 1920s to the late 1950s, a period marked by unease and unbalance that corresponds with the height of twentieth- century modernism. Focusing on avant-garde experiments in text and imagery in France, Making Strange brings a fresh perspective to the field by seeing the photobook through the lens of materiality. Sichel proposes that reading these books is a physical experience more central to photography’s universal message than viewing single prints in exhibitions or periodicals. Looking to the intersection of photography and book printing, modernist photobooks were collaborative objects between photographers, publishers, and designers. From their accessibility to greater physical longevity, modernist books had a broader impact on a larger commercial audience.

Each chapter of Making Strange centers on one decade and one or two volumes that exemplify a particular modernist approach. The first chapter, “Montage,” marks a departure from earlier norms in photography to the radically abstracted photomontage books of the roaring 1920s. In this chapter, Sichel analyzes Germaine Krull’s Métal (1928) and other montage-based projects including Moï Ver’s Paris (1931). The second chapter, “Dream Detectives,” decodes Brassaï’s Paris de nuit (1932) compared with Roger Parry’s Banalité (1930) as examples of the intermingling of 1930s Surrealist dream imagery and detective fiction’s clue-finding strategies. The third chapter, “Elegy,” addresses the upheaval of Europe during World War II and the impossibility of publishing in German-occupied France, resulting in photographic books with poetic and elegiac forms, particularly Pierre Jahan’s La mort et les statues (1946). The fourth chapter, “Nostalgia,” centers on the most celebrated postwar books of the early and mid-1950s, which reverted to a more narrative yet nostalgic picture-story form, illustrated by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Images á la sauvette (1952).

Although Paris lost its publishing impact after 1958, photographers in England, Japan, Germany and the United States adopted these pioneering methods in the following decades, which has been surprisingly understudied until now. By focusing on France rather than the aforementioned usual suspects, Making Strange offers a more complete picture of the innovations in early twentieth-century photographic book conception and construction. Making Strange can be read cover-to cover or selectively, based on individual chapters of interest. Art libraries, museums, and institutions that support art history, book arts, and photography programs would benefit from having this book in their collection.

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